‘ABLE :: FAST’, an Indigenous metaphor

Sometimes you hear people say there’s a word in Chinook Jargon for ‘can’t’, but not for ‘can’…

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There’s more than one reason for this.

Most often in Chinuk Wawa, you just imply ‘can’ — and in fact, you very often imply ‘can’t’ also. These concepts are verbalized far less often than you may be used to, if you’re a habitual speaker of English. So, even though there are well-known expressions for ‘can’t’ (x̣áwqaɬ in southern, and wík-qʰáta in northern Jargon), you’ll still want to kind of hold your horses before using these.

One of the ways to imply ‘can’ is to use the future, or some other expression that something will certainly occur.

And, if there is any reliable way to express ‘can’, ‘be able’, and so forth, it’s placing ayaq at the beginning of a clause. (This is the old dictionaries’ word hyack ‘fast’.) So you literally say stuff like ‘I’ll quickly butcher that whale’ when you mean ‘I can butcher that whale’.

This ayaq usage is documented mostly from the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation community in northwest Oregon. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t present in old-school Jargon. My thought is that Native people have long spoken this way, but the makers of those old-time CW dictionaries only thought of ayaq as meaning ‘fast’ when they jotted those quick word lists.

Here’s a bit of evidence for an old Indigenous metaphor ABLE :: FAST in the southwest Washington homeland of Chinuk Wawa:

  • Clatsop-Shoalwater Lower Chinookan uses ayaq this way, according to Franz Boas 1910:634.
  • Quinault Salish does, too. Ruth Modrow’s 1971 dictionary has instances like lál na ʔa-s-ʔisúxʷ ‘Can you carry it?’ (lal̓ ‘fast, quick, hurry’; compare the entry láʔ ‘can’, which I take as a more highly grammaticalized variant of the same root.)
  • The 1991 dictionary of Upper Chehalis by M. Dale Kinkade indicates x̣áxʷ[-]s as a word thought to express ‘can; be able’, and this is pretty clearly a usage of the frequent root for ‘fast, quick, hurry’.

I haven’t yet found an indication of this metaphor in the K’alapuyan languages or other families of the area.

Bonus fact:

‘Can’ in the sense of ‘know how to’ is, of course, expressed in a straightforward way in Jargon. You say kəmtəks ‘know’, plus the main verb.

This kəmtəks is a word that traces back all the way to Chinuk Wawa’s earliest historically known form, the late-1700’s pidginized Nuuchahnulth that we often call the Nootka Jargon.

This is an incredibly important point, and I don’t mind making it to you for the thousandth time:

Most of the grammatical function words in Chinuk Wawa came from Nootka Jargon. Just think, there’s

  • hayu- for the progressive aspect of verbs (“-ing”),
  • chaku- for the inchoative aspect (“become / get to doing”),
  • kəmtəks- for the habitual or characteristic aspect,
  • tənəs- for the diminutive,
  • hayas- for the intensive…

Some of these have competing etymologies in both Nootka Jargon and Chinookan, like some other very early CW words. ‘Water’ and ‘hat’ are further examples of this. But the best generalization is that NJ supplied the scaffolding on which Chinuk Wawa got built in Lower Chinookan & Chehalis country.

Knowledge and use of Nootka Jargon declined precipitously after about 1810. By implication, these NJ words, as a set, became part of Chinuk Wawa grammar by the time the first fur-trade post on this coast, Fort George (“Astoria”), was established in 1811.

Another implication of the existence of this set of grammatically-functioning NJ words is that, possibly, we have here a glimpse into the otherwise mostly unknown grammar of Nootka Jargon verbs. (Mostly we can figure out the structure of NJ noun phrases.) This is a very big deal, too!

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
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